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Biggest doping scandal to hit US racing in a generation lost amid Covid-19 chaos despite plot to rival movie script


Jason Servis (centre) was among several people arrested during an FBI investigation

Jason Servis (centre) was among several people arrested during an FBI investigation

Getty Images

Jason Servis (centre) was among several people arrested during an FBI investigation

Irony probably does not do it justice. Last week, it was the biggest doping scandal to hit American horse racing in a generation, possibly the final nail in the coffin of a sport beset by problems, not least the welfare of its equine competitors.

If you can imagine Dick Francis meets John Grisham, the plot rocked United States racing to its core - for about 10 minutes. But even the US, where you can use an anabolic steroid up to 60 days before racing, was shocked.

Its perpetrators, however, may be eternally grateful to coronavirus. On a US racing radio show yesterday, it was but a one-minute footnote in a half-hour programme.

This weekend, with virtually nothing else to show, the NBC Sports network, which had long since abandoned low-key racing, will team up with the sport's own channel, TVG, to show four hours of races, with the possibility of a surge in interest in, if not popularity for, racing.

The news that the FBI had arrested two leading trainers, Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, along with 25 others including assistants and vets, came just over a week after Servis had won the world's richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, and been hailed for his handling of Maximum Security, currently the best horse in the world.

Navarro, the leading trainer at Gulfstream Park for several years, trained X Y Jet to win the Golden Shaheen on Dubai World Cup night a year ago but the eight-year-old died of a heart attack in January.

Erythropoietin (EPO), one of the drugs allegedly being administered, is historically linked with premature heart attacks in cyclists. Both trainers had a good record of improving other people's cast-off horses.

Another irony is that the plot, which revolved around the mislabelling of performance-enhancing drugs and masking agents, was uncovered by the FBI, with its ability to wire tap, rather than any of the dope-testing programmes of the US's 38 separate state racing jurisdictions.

There you can lose your licence in one state after a few positive swabs, leave under a cloud, set up in another state but, with no exchange of medical records, leave the cloud behind. Indeed, the alleged perpetrators can probably consider themselves a bit unlucky.

"The investigation was not initially focused on the people indicted (on March 9)," said William Sweeney Jr of the FBI's New York office. "It was a different topic, but one thing led to another."

Servis, Navarro and their cohorts are due back in court on Monday for their arraignment. But this may be the tip of an iceberg, as those indicted weigh up likely sentences and how they might get them reduced by spilling a few more beans.

But what are the chances of something similar happening in Europe, and would it be uncovered?

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has long been familiar with detecting EPO.

With no prior knowledge of what was about to break in the US, its vets carried out 100 out-of-competition tests on horses at the Cheltenham Festival - almost a quarter of the runners - actively looking for the performance-enhancers which Servis and Navarro have been indicted on suspicion of using. They were taken from horses from yards in Britain, Ireland and France. They were all negative.

The BHA also monitored the website, since taken down, selling the performance-enhancing substances, and it has staff who wander around the dark side to see what is being offered, occasionally buying stuff online to analyse and pass on to laboratories to develop tests.

Of course, no racing authority can be complacent about its dope-testing procedures, but the BHA can be positive theirs are a pretty good deterrent.